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On Soundscapes

June 9, 2014

Last week, I was feeling half-speed, so I was sitting in the sun in the backyard with my eyes closed, listening. I would have preferred quiet, but we do not have a quiet town.

Quiet is relative, though. Noises that seemed unnecessarily loud to me could be masked by the sound of a breeze in our aspen trees. So it’s not decibel level alone that’s annoying. The aspen can make all the noise they want as far as I’m concerned.

But dogs, cars, trucks, motorcycles, amplified music, lawnmowers, power tools, alcohol-fueled speech—there are many things that fill our soundscape. Someone nearby was cutting his entire lawn with a weed-whacker. Soon, that noise was drowned out by the guy with a loud truck and two barking dogs.

It’s easy to focus on the absurdity of the soundscape we’ve made for ourselves and be annoyed, but at some point it starts to become comical, and if I listen carefully, it actually becomes interesting.

Sounds can be nothing but sound (although we often have emotional reactions to them), but they can also have meaning. The sounds of language may have meaning, if properly used, but language doesn’t require sound.

Sounds have context separate from language, so that if you’re working in the apparent cacophony of a factory, for example, you may be attuned to what hissing, banging, and clanging should be there and what shouldn’t. Like knowing the sounds of your car.

Children can be as fascinated by sounds that irritate adults as they are of the stories they like to hear again and again. And which, of course, you indulge them with, because now that school is out, it’s time for “Summer Reading.”

Summer Reading may describe something you do, but it also describes an annual program at the library that encourages children to read over the summer. For children who take to reading easily, it is often a joy as well as a source of great freedom.

As if kids need more freedom these days, you say. Well, no and yes. If you were a child in the ’60s or earlier, think of what your summer days were like. Mostly likely, Mom said, go outside and don’t come back until dinner.

No cell phones, no headphones, no texting, no GPS monitoring. We could play in the woods all day and roam widely without a second thought by anyone. But I digress.

For students, the positive effect on reading skills of reading through the summer, and the negative effect of not doing so, has been demonstrated over and over. The aim of the library’s summer reading program is to have fun but also to do something that’s good for students. Students who stop reading for just these few months show a measurable decline in ability at the start of the next school year.

The summer reading program is also for children not yet in school. We encourage students to read to younger siblings. It’s enjoyable both to read to someone and to be read to.

Listening is a pleasure different from merely hearing. Listening to a story is a different kind of engagement than hearing the background music that invades our lives in many places. The quality of our attention matters.

If I’ve kept your attention this far, then know that sign-up for the Summer Reading program has started. The program runs through July. Stop by or see the library website for more info.

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